Wood Identification Guide

by Eric Meier

When attempting to identify a wood sample, it’s important to keep in mind the limitations and obstacles that are present in our task. Before starting, please have a look at The Truth Behind Wood Identification to approach the task in a proper mindset; I consider the linked article to be required reading for all those visiting my site with the intent of identifying wood.

1. Confirm it is actually solid wood.

Before proceeding too much farther into the remaining steps, it’s first necessary to confirm that the material in question is actually a solid piece of wood, and not a man-made composite or piece of plastic made to imitate wood.

A solid piece of Cocobolo: note how the grain naturally wraps around the sides and endgrain of the wood.

Can you see the end-grain? 

Manufactured wood such as MDF, OSB, and particleboard all have a distinct look that is—in nearly all cases—easily distinguishable from the endgrain of real wood. Look for growth rings—formed by the yearly growth of a tree—which will be a dead-giveaway that the wood sample in question is a solid, genuine chunk of wood taken from a tree.

Viewing the end of this “board” reveals its true identity: particleboard.

Is it veneered? 

If you see a large panel that has a repeating grain pattern, it may be a veneer. In such cases, a very thin layer of real wood is peeled from a tree and attached to a substrate; sometimes the veneer can be one continuous repeating piece because it is rotary-sliced to shave off the veneer layer as the tree trunk is spun by machines. Assuming it is a real wood veneer with a distinct grain and texture—and not merely a piece of printed plastic—you may still be able to identify the outer veneer wood in question, but you should still realize that is it only a veneer and not a solid piece of wood.

Large repeating patterns suggest a veneer.

Is it painted or printed to look like wood? 

Many times, especially on medium to large-sized flat panels for furniture, a piece of particleboard or MDF is either laminated with a piece of wood-colored plastic, or simply painted to look like wood grain. Many of today’s interior hardwood flooring planks are good examples of these pseudo-wood products: they are essentially a man-made material made of sawdust, glues, resins, and durable plastics.

2. Look at the color.

Some questions to immediately ask yourself:

Is the color of the wood natural, or is it stained?

If there is even a chance that the color isn’t natural, the odds are increased that the entire effort of identifying the wood will be in vain.

The reddish brown stain used on this piece of Jatoba (Hymenaea courbaril) has been planed away on top, exposing the paler color of the raw wood underneath.

Is it weathered or have a patina?

Many woods, when left outside in the elements, tend to turn a bland gray color. Also, even interior wood also takes on a patina as it ages: some woods get darker, or redder, and some even get lighter or lose their color; but for the most part, wood tends to darken with age.

Fresh sanding near the end of this Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) board has exposed the characteristic yellow coloration of the wood, which has a strong tendency to shift down to a golden brown over time.

Is it possible to sand or plane the board to see the natural raw color of the wood?

The most predictable baseline to use when identifying wood is in a freshly sanded state. This eliminates the chances of a stain or natural aging skewing the color diagnosis of the wood.

3. Observe the wood grain.

If the wood is unfinished, then look at the texture of the grain. Ask yourself these questions:

Does the wood have an open, porous texture?

Most softwoods will be almost perfectly smooth with no grain indentations, while many common hardwoods have an open pore structure, such as oak or mahogany; though there are some hardwoods that are also smooth to the touch, such as maple.

Can you tell if the wood is quartersawn or plainsawn?

By observing the grain patterns, many times you can tell how the board was cut from the tree. Some wood species have dramatically different grain patterns from plainsawn to quartersawn surfaces. For instance, on their quartersawn surfaces, lacewood has large lace patterns, oak has flecks, and maple has the characteristic “butcher block” appearance.

Is there any figure or unusual characteristics, such as sapwood, curly or wild grain, burl/knots, etc.?

Some species of wood have figure that is much more common than in other species: for example, curly figure is fairly common in soft maple, and the curls are usually well-pronounced and close together. Yet when birch or cherry has a curly grain, it is more often much less pronounced, and the curls are spaced farther apart.

Curly Maple (sealed)
The strong, tight curl seen in this wood sample is very characteristic of Maple (Acer spp.).

4. Consider the weight and hardness of the wood.

If it’s possible, pick the piece of wood up and get a sense of its weight, and compare it to other known wood species. Try gouging the edge with your fingernail to get a sense of its hardness. If you have a scale, you can take measurements of the length, width, and thickness of the wood, and combine them to find the density of the wood. This can be helpful to compare to other density readings found in the database. When examining the wood in question, compare it to other known wood species, and ask yourself these questions:

Is the wood dry?

Wood from freshly felled trees, or wood that has been stored in an extremely humid environment will have very high moisture contents. In some freshly sawn pieces, moisture could account for over half of the wood’s total weight! Likewise, wood that has been stored in extremely dry conditions of less than 25% relative humidity will most likely feel lighter than average.

How does the wood’s weight compare to other species?

Taking into account the size of the board, how does its weight compare to other benchmark woods? Is it heavier than oak? Is it lighter than pine? Look at the weight numbers for a few wood species that are close to yours, and get a ballpark estimate of its weight.

A piece of Lignum Vitae is weighed on a small digital scale.

How hard is the wood? 

Obviously softwoods will tend to be softer than hardwoods, but try to get a sense of how it compares to other known woods. Density and hardness are closely related, so if the wood is heavy, it will most likely be hard too. If the wood is a part of a finished item that you can’t adequately weigh, you might be able to test the hardness by gouging it in an inconspicuous area. Also, if it is used in a piece of furniture, such as a tabletop, a general idea of its hardness can be assessed by the number and depth of the gouges/dings in the piece given its age and use. A tabletop made of pine will have much deeper dents than a tabletop made of Oak. Additionally, you can always try the “fingernail test” as a rough hardness indicator:  find a crisp edge of the wood, and with your fingernail try to push in as hard as you can and see if you’re able to make a dent in the wood.

5. Consider its history.

Many times we forget common sense and logic when attempting to identify wood. If you’ve got a piece of Amish furniture from Pennsylvania, chances are more likely that the wood  will be made of something like black walnut or cherry, and not African wenge or jatoba. You might call it “wood profiling,” but sometimes it can pay to be a little prejudiced when it comes to wood identification. Some common-sense questions to ask yourself when trying to identify a piece of wood:

Where did it come from?

Knowing as much as you can about the source of the wood—even the smallest details—can be helpful. If the wood came from a wood pile or a lumber mill where all the pieces were from trees processed locally, then the potential species are immediately limited. If the wood came from a builder of antique furniture, or a boat-builder, or a trim carpenter: each of these occupations will tend to use certain species of woods much more often than others, making a logical guess much simpler.

Despite its discoloration and wear, it’s very likely that this rolling pin is made of hard maple.

How old is it?

As with the wood’s source, its age will also help in identification purposes. Not only will it help to determine if the wood should have developed a natural patina, but it will also suggest certain species which were more prevalent at different times in history. For instance, many acoustic guitars made before the 1990s have featured Brazilian rosewood backs/sides, yet due to CITES restrictions placed upon that species, East Indian rosewood became a much more common species on newer guitars. (And this is a continuing shift as newer replacements are sought for rosewoods altogether.)

How large is the piece of wood?

Some species of trees are typically very small—some are even considered shrubs—while others get quite large. For instance, if you see a large panel or section of wood that’s entirely black, chances are it’s either painted, dyed, or stained: Gaboon ebony and related species are typically very small and very expensive.

What is the wood’s intended use?

Simply knowing what the wood was intended for—when considered in conjunction with where it came from and how old it is—can give you many clues to help identify it. In some applications, certain wood species are used much more frequently than others, so that you can make an educated guess as to the species of the wood based upon the application where it was used. For instance, in the United States: many older houses with solid hardwood floors have commonly used either red oak or hard maple; many antique furniture pieces have featured quartersawn white oak; many violins have spruce tops; many closet items used aromatic red cedar, and so forth. While it’s not a 100% guarantee, “profiling” the wood in question will help reduce the number of possible suspects, and aid in deducing the correct species.

6. Find the X-Factor.

Sometimes, after all the normal characteristics of a sample have been considered, the identity of the wood in question is still not apparent. In these instances—particularly in situations where a sample has been narrowed down to only a few possible remaining choices—it’s sometimes helpful to bring in specialized tests and other narrower means of identification.

The following techniques and recommendations don’t necessarily have a wide application in initially sorting out wood species and eliminating large swaths of wood species, but will most likely be of use only as a final step in special identification circumstances.

Odor

Believe it or not, freshly machined wood can have a very identifiable scent. When your eyes and hands can’t quite get a definitive answer, sometimes your nose can. Assuming there is no stain, finish, or preservative on or in the wood, quickly sand, saw, or otherwise machine a section of the wood in question, and take a whiff of the aroma.

Although new scents can be very difficult to express in words, many times the scent of an unknown wood may be similar to other known scents. For instance, rosewoods (Dalbergia spp.) are so named for their characteristic odor that is reminiscent of roses. Although difficult to directly communicate, with enough firsthand experience scents can become a memorable and powerful means of wood identification.

Fluorescence

While certain woods can appear basically identical to one another under normal lighting conditions, when exposed to certain wavelengths—such as those found in blacklights—the wood will absorb and emit light in a different (visible) wavelength. This phenomenon is known as fluorescence, and certain woods can be distinguished by the presence or absence of their fluorescent qualities. See the article Fluorescence: A Secret Weapon in Wood Identification for more information.

Black Locust: fluorescence (under blacklight)
Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) glows a bright yellow-green when placed under a blacklight.

Chemical Testing

There are only a small number of chemical tests regularly used on wood, most of which are very specialized and were developed to help distinguish easily confused species with one another. They work by detecting differences in the composition of heartwood extractives. A chemical substance (called a reagent) is usually dissolved in water and applied to the wood surface: the surface is then observed for any type of chemical reaction (and accompanying color change) that may occur. Two of the most useful are the tests that are meant to separate Red and White Oak, and Red and Hard Maple.

Heartwood Extractives Leachability

Sometimes a wood species will have heartwood extractives that will be readily leachable in water and capable of conspicuously tinting a solution of water a specific color. For instance, the heartwood extractives contained in osage orange (Maclura pomifera) contain a yellowish-brown dye that is soluble in water. (This can sometimes be observed anecdotally when the wood is glued with a water-based adhesive: the glue’s squeeze-out is an unusually vibrant yellow.)

In a simple water extract color test, wood shavings are mixed with water in a vial, test tube, or other suitably small container, and the color of the water is observed after a few minutes. If the heartwood extractives are leachable by water, then a corresponding color change should quickly occur.

In addition to osage orange (Maclura pomifera)merbau (Intsia spp.), and rengas (Gluta spp. and Melanorrhoea spp.) are also noted for their readily leachable heartwood extractives. Because this property is quite uncommon, it can serve to quickly differentiate these woods from other lookalikes.

7. Look at the endgrain.

Perhaps no other technique for accurate identification of wood is as helpful and conclusive as the magnified examination of the endgrain. Frequently, it brings the identification process from a mostly intuitive, unscientific process into a predictable, repeatable, and reliable procedure.

Looking at the endgrain with a magnifier shouldn’t be a mystifying or esoteric art. In many cases, it’s nearly as simple as examining small newsprint under a magnifying glass. There are three components necessary to reap the full benefits contained in the endgrain:

I. A prepared surface.

When working with wood in most capacities, it becomes quickly apparent that endgrain surfaces are not nearly as cooperative or as easily worked as face grain surfaces. However, in this case, it is absolutely critical that a clear and refined endgrain surface is obtained.

For a quick glance of a softwood sample, a very sharp knife or razor blade can be used to take a fresh slice from the endgrain. However, in many denser species, especially in tropical hardwoods, one of the best ways to obtain a clear endgrain view is through diligent sanding. It’s usually best to begin with a relatively smooth saw cut (as from a fine-toothed miter saw blade) and proceed through the grits, starting at around 100, and working up to at least 220 or 320 grit, preferably higher for the cleanest view.

II. The right magnifier.

It need not be expensive, but whatever tool is used to view the endgrain should have adequate magnifying power. In most instances, 10x magnification is ideal, however, anything within the range of 8 to 15x magnification should be suitable for endgrain viewing. (Standard magnifying glasses are typically in the range of 2 to 4x magnification.)

These stronger magnifiers, sometimes called loupes, usually have a smaller viewing area than standard magnifying glasses. Fancier models—with built in lights, or larger viewing surfaces—are available at a premium; but the most basic models are usually only a few dollars.

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III. A trained eye.

The third element that constitutes a proper endgrain examination is simply knowing what to look for. In analyzing the patterns, colors, shapes, and spacing of the various anatomical features, there is a veritable storehouse of information within the endgrain—all waiting to be unlocked. Yet, if these elements have not been pointed out and learned, the array of features will simply seem like an unintelligible jumble. The discipline of recognizing anatomical endgrain features is not easily summed up in a few sentences or even a few paragraphs, but it is nonetheless critical to the identification process. To this end, an in-depth look should be given to the various categories, divisions, and elements that constitute endgrain wood identification on the macroscopic level. (In this regard, macroscopic denotes what can be seen with a low-powered, 10x hand lens—without the aid of a microscope—rather than simply what can be seen with the naked eye.) Because the anatomy between softwoods and hardwoods is so divergent, each will be considered and examined separately:

Still stumped?

If you have a mysterious piece of wood that you’d like identified, you’ve got a few options for next steps:

USDA’s Forest Products Laboratory

You can mail your physical wood samples to the Center for Wood Anatomy Research

Pros:

  • Free
  • Professional wood identification

Cons:

  • Only available to US citizens
  • Slow turnaround times (up to a month or more)
  • Limited to three IDs per year

See their Wood ID Factsheet for more info.

Alden Identification Service

You can mail your physical wood samples (even small sections taken from antiques) to Alden Identification Service.

Pros:

  • Professional wood identification
  • Faster turnaround times (ranging from a few days to a week or two)

Cons:

  • Paid service

See their ordering page for more info. (Note that Harry Alden has written several books while at USDA, including both Hardwoods and Softwoods of North America.)

Ask for help online

If the wood ID is merely a curiosity, or non-critical, you can post pictures of the wood in question.

Pros:

  • Free
  • No need to send physical samples

Cons:

  • Greatly limited by the quality of the pictures provided
  • Extra work usually required to get adequate clarity in photos

See article of Common US Hardwoods to help find the most commonly used woods.

Get the hard copy

wood-book-standupIf you’re interested in getting all that makes The Wood Database unique distilled into a single, real-world resource, there’s the book that’s based on the website—the Amazon.com best-seller, WOOD! Identifying and Using Hundreds of Woods Worldwide. It contains many of the most popular articles found on this website, as well as hundreds of wood profiles—laid out with the same clarity and convenience of the website—packaged in a shop-friendly hardcover book.
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James Howard

Hi, I recently got given this lump of timber and having some trouble identifying it. Narrowed it down to possible Jarrah/Cumaru/Camelthorn but struggling to get any clarity

Piece is old and feels very dry and comes in with an SG around 1.1 and smells like feet when milled

Wood weight
Extremely heavy (sinks in water)
Distinct wood odor?
Yes
Geographic region
Unsure
Miles B

Hi there! I’m trying to sell a beautiful antique wooden table and I couldn’t quite figure out what type of wood it is made from. Could you help with the attached photographs?
Thanks very much

Wood weight
Fairly heavy (like oak)
Distinct wood odor?
No
Geographic region
London, UK
Drop Leaf Table (1).jpeg
Drop Leaf Table (3).jpeg
Drop Leaf Table (6).jpeg
Drop Leaf Table (7).jpeg
Danny

Hi, Would anyone have any good ideas what wood this handle is? The photo is quite a solid representation. It feels fairly light. Thanks

Wood weight
Fairly light (like pine)
Distinct wood odor?
I don't know
Geographic region
UK
Wood.jpg
Danny

Just to add i believe the geographic location of the wood to be Pakistan (currently reads UK) ^^^

Pam H

We are trying to find out what type of wood this is, and about how old it is. My husband was told that this table is from the civil war era. Im not so sure, though. Any idea?
On the underside of the table top there is writing or a stamp, that I can’t tell what is says. That is in the last picture.
Thank you for your help.

Wood weight
Extremely heavy (sinks in water)
Distinct wood odor?
I don't know
Geographic region
IN
0492D6C4-A1A9-4F38-AE49-0E6272C068D3.jpeg
4BA87501-05A0-41E3-85DA-AB344BC52B57.jpeg
B639E48A-B592-47EE-805D-D3010DD0E1C8.jpeg
Gene Silvernail

I’ new to this and hope I’m doing it right, if not my apologies. Many years ago I worked and lived in Alaska. 40+ years ago I left and before I left loaded a conex with my possessions and 2 other items, they were abandon water tanks. I disassembled them marking all pieces and then they set these last 40 years. Today with the price of wood gone nuts I ran one them through a jointer to see what it looked like. The following is the best information I know about this wood and would appreciate any help ID’ing for… Read more »

Wood weight
Fairly light (like pine)
Distinct wood odor?
No
Geographic region
North America
Gene Silvernail

Thanks Eric, new to this.

Water Tank Wood 2.jpg
Water Tank Wood 3.jpg
Gene Silvernail

Last one,
Also on the smell the new cut is actually very aromatic and reminds me of something, but what I can’t remember.

Water Tank Wood 1.jpg
Gene Silvernail

I don’t know if this helps but… Coming from Alaska with history 80 years plus I though it may be native to the area, so spruce. Does spruce have an aromatic smell, like this does, when cut?, I don’t know. Then looked at pictures of spruce wood and they look similar. Researched the use of spruce in aircraft and the requirements for spars state that at least 6-8 rings per inch is a requirement. With this I measured my piece and spruce goes out as a candidate since this has 20 rings per inch which is 2.5 times that number.… Read more »

Gene Silvernail

Eric, I think you hit a home run… When you gave me the clue “raw potatoes” the neurons aligned to what I was smelling. I think you are right. Having lasted all these years and from research on what water tanks were made from, i.e. Cypress and AYC is also called the same and its origin Alaska AYC makes sense. So I’m going with AYC. Good job, well don… thank you. The smell kind of reminded me of cedar but not quite and besides it was not what I knew, color wise, as cedar. Much denser than cedar. Now that… Read more »

Gene Silvernail

So why my interest after 40 years of having this mystery wood? Good question. My friend and neighbor has cancer, will pass soon and is under hospice care at home. I wanted something that belong to him and bought his jointer, not knowing exactly what its purpose was. It belong to my friend. So watching and reading I fired it up remembered and skinned a piece of this old forgotten wood of 40 years ago. I think its beautiful and needs a new purpose. Maybe some book shelves. Further reading I’m leaning somewhat away from spruce if what I’ve read… Read more »

George Webber

I would appreciate it if anyone can identify the wood in this walking stick.

Wood weight
Fairly heavy (like oak)
Distinct wood odor?
No
Geographic region
Southeast
C00DAAA3-C4BA-4F4B-A12F-95A76FD63576.jpeg
Sian Titchener

I have found this beautiful old wooden table lamp at a market in the UK. I am just trying to work out what wood it is made of. It so heavy, and has a beautiful grain. I thought it maybe Elm but not sure. Any ideas? thank you

Wood weight
Extremely heavy (sinks in water)
Distinct wood odor?
I don't know
Geographic region
UK
1619959223524311154548619245443.jpg
16199593207021922352167361093272.jpg
Edward Bazemore

What kind of wood is this?

Wood weight
Fairly heavy (like oak)
Distinct wood odor?
No
Geographic region
Southeast
761ED23A-247D-4C0F-8C4D-A66C21CCC4A3.jpeg
D98D4742-5138-4799-B2AD-5D371F1B1C52.jpeg
Dulcimore Dan

Sorry on the location, it was salvaged from a broken pallet so it could be international. I reckoned it to be rough sawn spalted Maple but once sanded and the piece on the left with a light coat of oil, I don’t know. It does smell like an old Maple….but the figure has me baffled. Thank you in advance.

Wood weight
Fairly heavy (like oak)
Distinct wood odor?
Yes
Geographic region
TN
IMG_20210416_170119_HDR.jpg
Richard

I wonder if someone can identify the wood in this coffee table, my partner wants to get a similar dining table but this was made by a local guy who made furniture as a hobby – sadly now passed so (obviously) not able to check. Any thoughts gratefully appreciated. NB: Can’t be sure about the weight, I’m fairly sure the legs are made of something different.

Wood weight
Fairly heavy (like oak)
Distinct wood odor?
I don't know
Geographic region
UK (Kent,South East England)
01787FBA-BBC6-4A7C-8C8B-14AC139D11C3.jpeg
781A5891-2C5C-4621-82CA-466F7A3E9D9C.jpeg
Ingjr

Looks like Myrtle to me. Pull up some web pics of myrtle burl and it is very similar. Just a guess.

Zander

Looks like either burr elm or english pippy oak. Google both and see what you think

Ironmike

I have 5 planks of very light-colored wood which is also light weight. They are about 2′ true x 14″ true x 10 ‘. My late father told me it was Basswood but how can I tell for sure. There are a few very thin, dark grains, like almost black and the width of a thin sharpie.

Wood weight
Very light (like balsa)
Distinct wood odor?
No
Geographic region
Savannah, MO
Melissa

I found this hardwood floor buried under a layer of carpet and a layer of veneer planks. My house was built in 1916 in Minneapolis, MN. I am just curious if anyone knows what kind of wood this is?

Wood weight
I don't know
Distinct wood odor?
I don't know
Geographic region
Minnesota
Jeff

Good evening. Any idea what this wood is? 1948 home. I was going to paint the steps, but after sanding, I found this cool looking wood grain… thanks!

Wood weight
Fairly heavy (like oak)
Distinct wood odor?
I don't know
Geographic region
Tennessee
DC1377ED-BE49-467C-A4D2-50719CBDD1FE.png
Jeff

Thanks!

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